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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The second stanza of “Harlem” is characterized by a repeating syntactic structure that the speaker uses to ask a series of rhetorical questions. This structure involves the speaker asking a rhetorical question that starts with, “Does it . . . ?” They then immediately follow that question with another that begins, “Or . . . ?” This structure repeats twice in the second stanza (lines 2–8):
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
The repeating structure of “Does it . . . ? Or . . . ?” creates a sense of orderliness in this stanza. The speaker amplifies this sense of orderliness by concluding each of the secondary questions the same way, with a long dash and a final qualifying clause. By the time the reader reaches the third stanza, however, this sense of orderliness dissipates. The third stanza, which consists of just two lines, breaks from the pattern of rhetorical questions and introduces the poem’s only indicative statement: “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load” (lines 9–10). By the fourth stanza, which is just one line long, the speaker completely breaks from the orderliness of the second stanza. The speaker signals this break by reversing the order of elements in the second stanza’s pattern of “Does it . . . ? Or . . . ?” Indeed, the last line reads: “Or does it explode?” (line 11).
The bulk of “Harlem” consists of the speaker describing different outcomes that might result from deferring a dream. Significantly, most of the outcomes described by the speaker relate to processes of degeneration. The speaker catalogs these degenerative processes in the poem’s second stanza (lines 2–8):
To begin, notice that the speaker’s first three suggested outcomes explicitly compare the deferral of a dream to natural processes of material degeneration. When placed in direct sunlight, for instance, a grape desiccates and shrivels up into a raisin. Next, the speaker compares the deferral of a dream to biological processes of disease and rot. First, they liken the dream to an infected and suppurating wound, then they compare it to a piece of spoiling meat. In the final two lines of passage quoted here, the speaker equates a deferred dream to the crust that forms when sugar crystallizes. Although the image of a “syrupy sweet” initially seems less repulsive than decomposing flesh, the use of the word “crust” evokes the gruesome image of a freshly formed scab. In short, then, the speaker conjures several processes to indicate several ways that a dream deferred might degenerate.